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Pollen probe of early Maya farming.

Pollen probe of early Maya farming

In the late 1970s, researchers established that by about 2300B.C. the ancient Maya were making pottery and growing maize. But the origin of these Maya farmers of lowland regions in what is now Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and the Yucatan Peninsula has been unclear. Did they migrate from outside the Maya lowlands with agricultural and ceramic skills in tow, or were they longtime lowland dwellers?

An analysis of pollen extracted from a lake shore in westernHonduras supports the latter contention. David J. Rue of Pennsylvania State University in University Park identified the types of pollen preserved in a 5-foot-deep cut of soil. Burned wood fragments from the deepest part of the cut were radiocarbon-dated to nearly 3000 B.C., he reports in the March 19 NATURE. That there was no pollen from the trees known to flourish in the same area suggests that much of the surrounding forest was cleared and "slash-and-burn agriculture' was practiced. The farming method, in which trees are cut down and burned to create fields that are planted just before the rainy season, has been documented in later phases of the Maya civilization.

The pollen data indicate that "agriculture existed long beforethe rise of complex societies in the lowlands and did not have a [short] history of development,' notes Jeremy A. Sabloff of the University of Pittsburgh in the same NATURE.

Pollen analysis at another Honduran site, says Rue, indicatesthat there was widespread clearing of the forest in the region around the Classic Maya city of Copan at the time of its collapse. Signs of human agricultural activity at what is now a swamp just outside of Copan extend from A.D. 950 to A.D. 1200.

The urban centers and majestic artwork of the Classic periodflourished from A.D. 250 to A.D. 900, when the "golden era' of Maya society foundered (SN: 6/7/86, p.360). Rue's finding fits in with recent archaeological studies of several Maya regions indicating that reduced rural populations remained near some urban centers after the collapse.

The pollen evidence also fuels the argument that thedepletion of soil available for farming due to slash-and-burn techniques was important in the downfall of some southern lowland centers, says Sabloff. As a result, he suggests, northern lowland cities on the Yucatan Peninsula may have become more attractive to the Classic Maya population in the south, as well as to Maya traders. However, the spectrum of political, social and economic reasons for the great changes in the Maya world at the end of the Classic period remains unclear.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 4, 1987
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